More Math for Admission

California State University System weighs adding a quantitative reasoning requirement that advocates for underrepresented students worry could worsen gaps in access.

September 3, 2019
 
Cal State board's committee hearing Thursday

The California State University system has proposed requiring applicants to take an additional course in quantitative reasoning in high school to qualify for admission to its campuses -- a recommendation that critics say would disproportionately limit access to Cal State for already underrepresented student populations.

The educational policy committee of Cal State's Board of Trustees held a public hearing on the proposal Thursday, featuring testimony from educators and policy experts and a slew of one-minute presentations from students, teachers and others -- most of them pleas to reconsider the plan.

The proposal could begin requiring applicants, starting with the freshman class of 2026, to take one more year of quantitative reasoning to be considered for CSU admission, in addition to the existing requirement of three mathematics courses in algebra I, geometry and algebra II or higher.

The number of mathematics requirements would not increase, James T. Minor, Cal State's assistant vice chancellor and senior strategist, said during the regents' committee session Thursday. Rather, the proposal would increase the existing career and technology education requirement from one to two courses. The additional requirement could be fulfilled by a mathematics or laboratory science course, or fall directly within the elective curriculum if it involves quantitative reasoning, such as forensics, engineering or sports medicine electives. Other elective course offerings that are not STEM related, however, would not fulfill the requirement.

“Every comprehensive California high school today offers at least one qualifying course,” said Marquita Grenot-Scheyer, assistant vice chancellor, educator preparation and public school programs. Under the proposal, she added, “no student would be denied access to the CSU because they couldn't take a quantitative reasoning course through no fault of their own.” But system officials did not define exactly how students would be exempted from the requirement.

At Thursday's hearing, while protesters opposed the proposal outside, invited speakers, such as Audrey Dow, senior vice president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, repeated concerns that have been voiced by the proposal’s foes since it was first pitched in 2016. The most common worry was that the additional requirement would disproportionately decrease eligibility for Cal State for African American, Latinx and low-income students, who have historically struggled to meet the system’s current standards.

California’s black students, whose 30 percent admissions eligibility rate is already the lowest among the state's demographic groups, could drop to as low as 22 percent with an additional math requirement, according to a report from RTI International released earlier this week. The requirements could reduce Latinx students’ eligibility rate from 32 percent to as low as 25 percent, and American Indian students could drop to a rate as low as 28 percent, below the system’s goal of a 33 percent eligibility rate for all students.

Female students’ eligibility, which was 47 percent in 2015, could drop nearly 10 percentage points to as low as 38 percent, the report said. Low-income students’ eligibility rate in 2015 sat just above the Cal State system's target at 34 percent, but could drop to as low as 27 percent with the additional quantitative reasoning requirement.

Some of California’s high schools, especially in rural areas, currently lack a large number of course offerings that could fulfill the proposed requirement, Grenot-Scheyer said. This would force students at these schools into more mathematics or science courses, putting them at a disadvantage, critics argued. Cal State has not yet done a deep analysis of which schools would be affected and who those students may be, which was among the factors leading opponents to urge a delay in adoption of the proposal. (The system plans to introduce the proposal formally to the board at a meeting Sept. 24-25 and to ask the board to vote on Nov. 19-20.)

“We're in the process of executing a data-sharing agreement with [the California Department of Education] that would give further clarity and precision to what school districts and what high schools more specifically have the greatest resource needs,” Grenot-Scheyer said.

Cal State officials pledged that if the proposal is passed, over the next four years, the university system would spend $10 million to better prepare teachers who instruct STEM-related courses at schools that trail in quantitative reasoning course offerings, to get all public high schools up to speed by the requirement’s proposed start in 2026, Grenot-Scheyer said.

But Dow was not satisfied with the promise of more funding, she said. If Cal State knows these schools already aren’t able to provide adequate course offerings, she asked, why consider implementing the proposal before these standards are improved?

“Using admission policy as a lever for student success will only lead to winners and losers,” Dow said during the session. Instead, Cal State should work with the state's K-12 leaders to revisit high school graduation requirements, “so all students have equitable opportunities to access the CSU.”

Why Raise the Bar?

Cal State officials provided their own reasoning for the proposal -- of the university system's students who enrolled in fall 2014, those who had four courses in quantitative reasoning, meeting the proposal’s requirements, were more likely to return for their second year of college than students who only had three, according to the university's most recent institutional data, Minor said. Minor also emphasized the demand for graduates with STEM education in expanding industries -- with more quantitative reasoning education, students would be better prepared for STEM careers, he said.

California students also want to pursue STEM careers, Minor said: 52 percent of all 2017 ACT test takers in the state indicated they were interested in those fields, but only 31 percent of them met benchmarks set by the ACT for college readiness in STEM.

“We are confident that the data and evidence are sufficient, that a quantitative reasoning admission requirement is the right thing to do,” Loren J. Blanchard, executive vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, said during the board’s hearing Thursday.

As a whole, the Cal State system saw high school graduates' eligibility increase over the past decade, according to the state’s Master Plan for Higher Education, a review published in 2018. Overall eligibility grew from 32.7 percent to 40.8 percent from 2007 to 2015, the state reported, citing improvements in high school-level education. In 2017, 45 percent of high school students statewide met the existing admission requirements for both Cal State system and the (more exclusive) University of California system.

“It is not clear what problem this high-stakes experiment is intended to address -- other than the fact that ‘too many’ students meet current eligibility requirements, under the constraints of the Master Plan,” Pamela Burdman, senior project director for the Opportunity Institute, wrote in a blog post for a math policy advocacy group. “Wouldn’t it be better to celebrate eligibility and support capacity building within high schools and the CSU?”

Across the Committee on Educational Policy, trustees also echoed concerns about the proposal putting underresourced schools (and, in turn, their students) at a disadvantage. Above all else, stakeholders wondered why admission and goals for student retention are being put above K-12 education standards, when Cal State's own data have identified these inequities in high schools already.

“I know we’re trying to address that by educating more math quantitative teachers, but I continue to feel that we're perhaps putting the cart before the horse, and we should be focusing on making sure quantitative reasoning is available, not just the traditional math courses,” said trustee Lillian Kimbell during the session.

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